Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Part Three:  Individualism

Individualism in thought has for a long time been a hallmark of the West.  Much has been made of the contrast between the Confucian, community-oriented thinking of the East (broadly defined as Asia), and the Aristotelian, individual-oriented thinking in the West (more or less Europe and its colonies).  But studies by Richard Nisbett and others have demonstrated that these styles of thinking are also styles of perception!  That is, when Easterners and Westerners are shown the same image, they will later (on average) report having seen different things.  Asian observers tend, for example, to focus on more holistic, relationship-oriented patterns in the images, while Europeans and Americans will remember having seen discrete objects, and usually only the more prominent ones in terms of size and placement.  As an example, consider the following image, from Nisbett’s enlightening book, The Geography of Thought:       Does the cow more naturally associate itself in your mind with the grass or the chicken?  If you think like a Westerner, you’ll categorise, and assume that the two farm animals go together.  If you think more like an Asian, you’ll naturally assume that the relationship between the cow and its food is more important.  This goes very deep, and points to the massive impact that culture has on learning.  Western thought tends to view things in isolation:  Western medicine is focused on fixing things that have broken, and you pay your doctor when he has ‘fixed’ you.  Eastern medicine is focused on the holistic idea of health, and you pay your doctor while you are well, only neglecting payment when you fall ill.  It’s his job to keep you healthy, after all!  It all depends on what we’re conditioned to pay attention to.  Consider the (now hackneyed) video of the “attention test”, in which the viewer is asked to pay attention to how many times a basketball is passed between players.  While focused on this task, most people are absolutely blind to other parts of the video that are in plain view.  If you haven’t had a chance to see this yet, it’s worth trying:   .   Teaching, in my opinion, is the subversive activity with which we can free ourselves from entrenched patterns of thought and perception.   At least, it should be.

However, since the 1970s or earlier, there has been a trend towards the education of Western children in the spirit of increasing and enforcing their individualism.  No doubt this had sensible origins:  probably it was pushback from the kind of Stalag-like schools of the 1940s and 50s, where having your hair touch your collar was grounds for suspension.  I hope that nobody today really thinks that caning children in schools is a good idea, but there seems to have been (as is SO often the case in education) a too-broad generalization of good research, resulting in bandwagoning and foolish ideas.  In the 1950s, the suggestion that parents ought to have more of a say than teachers in matters of school discipline was laughable, a minority opinion that would have ostracised those who espoused it.  Now that it is the norm, the very same opinions that would have made somebody PART of an acceptable majority 60 years ago are the ones that could get you excluded from a conversation today.

But the changeover was not graceful, nor particularly well informed:  the Human Potential Movement, which many critics (such as Jean Twenge) point to as the origin of the “self-esteem” epidemic we are currently caught in, was not originally such a one-trick pony.  Aside from self-esteem (which used to be a very clinical term, unknown to any but psychologists), it espoused ideas such as learning to be in the moment, and to appreciate the here and now.  It advocated that individuals see themselves, and act, as part of a community.  Within those communities, it suggested that there be an effort to generate positive social change.  And, tellingly, it insisted that we try to have compassion for others.  Somehow (I suspect because of the way ideas are passed on by people who have not actually read the original documents in which they are expressed), “self-esteem” overshadowed all of those other laudable goals, to the extent that modern students’ capacity for empathy is at an all-time recorded low.  They are cut off from understanding the feelings of others.  Of course, this isolation reinforces our inability to judge risk effectively:  when we have only our own emotional reactions to go by, and when community is no longer available as a sounding-board, we are stuck with our own fears and with the media, which of course capitalises off of them.  It is interesting to note that the forgotten precepts of the Human Potential Movement are all what we would term “Asian”, almost Buddhist values:  zen, community, compassion:  it would seem that our Western perceptions were able only to remember and reinforce (perhaps through the confirmation bias) the precepts that were amiable to our preconceived modes of thought.

 The hierarchical structure of public schools also has an effect:  those wishing to ‘advance’ in their careers as administrators will have a very long, uphill battle to fight if they do not subscribe to the prevailing wisdom of self-esteem, incomplete and misunderstood as it is.  The field of education (rather ironically) is notorious in academic circles for its uncritical bandwagoning acceptance of various memes.  No doubt this is related to the control of education by politics, which in my opinion is a calamity that does more to hamper the progress of education than perhaps any other single factor.  Those of us teachers who have been in the business long enough to have seen several of these bandwagons come, go, get relabelled, and come again, are less likely to be fooled.  But the pressure from above to accept them still exists.

Finally, it must be conceded that media are commercially motivated entities.  We ‘consume’ media, and though there is a certain amount of what we call choice in this, it really is quite limited.  The ubiquitous “if it bleeds it leads” model of news does not really have an alternative in our culture.  There is no “good news channel” which would let us know just how unlikely it is to be killed or injured.  There is no newspaper which reports drops in crime rates or the lack of epidemics.  When we go to the grocery store, we feel like we have choice as well:  hundreds of different kinds of breakfast cereals, for example — most of which are owned by a handful of corporations, and few of which have significant differences in nutrition or even in taste.  The choices students and teachers make in the day-to-day running of the school system are all made from within a very narrow band of options, all of which support the status quo.  Something as simple as the choice of when we will relieve our bladders is made to be a big deal, and anything that fundamentally questions the school system as it currently is run will draw unwanted ire.  I think consumers, as well as students, know that their choices are really mostly meaningless.  I think they feel it on a fundamental level, even if they can’t identify it.  I think the need for a sense of real agency in your own life and world is absolutely essential for any kind of feeling of well-being:  you need to know that you can have a positive effect on your environment and on your life.  This is the #1 reason younger people give me for not voting:  they really feel helpless, though on the surface they appear to have choice.  Ironically, of course, they truly hold the balance of power in this country:  if they were to vote en masse in accordance with their conscience, by all accounts the political scene in Canada would be radically changed from what it is now.  Watch this five-minute video of former General (now Senator) Romeo Dallaire making this very point:  

The reality of their situation does not match their perception.  In addition, the very presence of so much choice is (rather counter-intuitively) making people more unhappy and angst-ridden:  with so many choices, the possibility of picking the perfect choice is seen as possible.  Regret, self-castigation, and uncertainty plague many decisions made by people in the West today.  In the East, where individual choice is not considered the apogee of social achievement, levels of anxiety are lower except where excessive parental control is involved.

My next blog entry will talk about the benefits of overcoming this risk-averse approach to education:  how failure is not only an acceptable, but a desired outcome when you are trying to actually learn.

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